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Humphrey Bogart in Raoul Walsh's 1941 "High Sierra," which Walsh later re-cast in 1949 as the Western "Colorado Territory," with Joel McCrea in the lead. Image courtesy Warner Brothers.

Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong era. Oh to have been around -- in Paris, in New York, even in San Francisco -- to absorb the art, cinema, theater, dance and music being produced in the 20 years preceding and two decades following World War II. While the dance, particularly at New York City Ballet and the Martha Graham Dance Company, has not always been so carefully preserved, fortunately there still exist in New York enclaves where you can experience some of the art that emerged in this epoch. In the last week alone I've seen rare art by the American originals Stuart Davis and Romare Bearden (at DC Moore) and Raoul Walsh's rarely screened re-casting of his 1941 classic Humphrey Bogart gangster pic "High Sierra" as a 1949 Joel McCrea Western, "Colorado Territory," both being shown as part of Anthology Film Archives' Auto-Remake series.

Shortly before Wednesday's projection of "Colorado Territory" began at Anthology's cinema at 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street -- it screens again tonight and next Tuesday, as does "High Sierra" -- I heard someone in the audience observe to a friend that in the Auto-Remake pairings he'd seen so far, the original was always better. (To refresh on what I wrote earlier about this series, the concept is simple: Anthology pairs the originals with remakes by the original directors.) Not this time. What was enlightening about seeing these two films back to back was that the original barely held a candle to the follow-up. It's a suprising result, given that the conventional wisdom would be that the original's stars, Bogart and Ida Lupino, bring a lot more fire-power to the table than McCrea and his romantic foil, Virginia Mayo, she usually being consigned to B movies. The improvement, then, is not so much in the stars as in... the direction, with Walsh using "Colorado Territory" to work out kinks in the scenario of "High Sierra," to make the film not just less uneven -- because "High Sierra" is definitely that, at times looking as grand as Bogart can make a film, at others like standard gangster movie fare -- but to set himself new challenges with the 1949 film that made it more morally complex and complicated.

For starters, Walsh replaced Bogart -- in 1941, known mostly for playing gangsters -- with McCrea, already a certified Western hero. To call him a poor man's Jimmy Stewart would be to under-rate his acting chops, which were more natural and rugged than Stewart's, his earnestness and gravelly voice making for an endearing genuineness. Even if Walsh stacks the deck a bit by not showing McCrea committing any murders, even in the course of the robbery -- here, the hero/anti-hero just out of prison leads a train robbery, ante-dating the resort knock-off with which Bogart's Roy Earle is charged -- by the re-casting alone, he's essentially changed our perspective from that of a simple hood who will never change to that of a man whose made some mistakes and really wants to go right (which for McCrea's Wes McQueen means buying and settling down on a ranch). By the end, when Wes is cornered in a lost Mexican village, 'The City of the Moon,' ensconced in a towering sheer mountain in the Valley of Death, we're firmly in his corner; when Wes and his gal, Colorado (that's her name) meet their ultimate fate, Walsh has elevated a simple crime story to the level of tragedy.

Unfortunately, Walsh seems to have been paying more attention in "Colorado Territory," the film, than to the details of Colorado, the heroine, at least in one important respect: Mayo's skin has apparently been darkened, a la Jennifer Jones in "Duel in the Sun," made just three years earlier, to reflect (invent?) her character's mixed heritage, her mother having been half-Pueblo Indian, which of course explains her savage behavior ("Half-breed, it's all I ever heard....") and fiery love for Wes, not to mention her lack of decorum. (When he first encounters her, her legs are splayed open, albeit covered by a dress.) Mayo saves the role by taking what she's been given and running with it, her passion for Wes raising the stakes. (And also making for some great scenes, as when she wrassles the queen of conniving herself, Dorothy Malone -- in what might be her first conniving role, as Wes's other love interest -- to the ground to prevent her from betraying him to the posse.) By the end -- and in another improvement or, at least, enhancement of the earlier film -- Walsh has made not just a Western out of a gangster pic but a story of true love.

.... Which isnt to say there's not a lot to love in the original! Besides Bogart, which is a given -- he does look great with that added touch of grey! -- there's Lupino. This is before she established herself as a bittersweet moll par excellence; there's no bitter here, just sweet. She's sweet on him too so that even if the morality here is less ambiguous than in the later version, there is still some redemption for Earle, and Lupino brings it home at the end when, after he's met his fate, she asks a reporter what prisoners mean when they talk about 'crashing through,' as Bogart's Earle had done outloud in his nightmares. "It means breaking free," the wise-ass reporter explains. "Free!" she yells in blessed release, as Walsh's camera zooms in on her face, with all its muscles also being released. "Free, he's free!"

And speaking of ranging free, if there's one appeal both films share, it's the stunning landscapes they offer, of the Sierras and dry Colorado mountain ranges, respectively. This alone makes them worth the price of admission, even if there's a separate admission for each films, both of which show again tonight and Tuesday. And I for one hope the theater will be more packed than it was for Friday's screenings. It would be a mistake to view these and the other Auto-Remake films as just "old movies," especially when they have been programmed by Jonas Mekas and his crew of Anthology curators. Paired together like this -- as immediate comparative examinations of some of the biggest directors of our time re-crafting their own work -- what they're really about is the craft of movie-making itself.

Romare Bearden, Odysseus Series: Battle of Cicones, c. 1977. Watercolor and graphite on paper. Courtesy DC Moore Gallery.

Enjoying a bit of longer run, through April 30 at the DC Moore gallery at 535 W. 22nd in Chelsea, is "Series and Sequences," which offers its own species of the auto-remake in the work of four major 20th century artists, each seen returning to a theme, revealing -- like Anthology's Auto-Remake series in fact -- the ways in which artists enter into a dialogue with their own work through series.

In 1977, Romare Bearden (1911-1987) created a cycle of collages and watercolors based on episodes from Homer?s epic poem, the Odyssey. In the complete set of 24 watercolors -- all on display here -- Bearden reinterprets Odysseus's heroic quest by emphasizing the North African aspects of its Mediterranean setting and using imagery rooted in both classical mythology and African-American culture. Bearden created these works at mid-career, perhaps reflecting on his own journey as an artist as well as the historic African- American search for home.

Stuart Davis, Study for 'Men without Women," 1932, Radio City Music Hall Mural. Ink and pencil on paper, 11 x 17 inches. Courtesy DC Moore Gallery.

If his global impact was broader, Stuart Davis's history, like Bearden's, was inextricably woven into that of New York City. DC Moore has paired two studies for his monumental Racio City Music Hall mural "Men without Women" -- you'll find it in the Men's Lounge -- both of which demonstrate that what made Davis unique as a pioneering abstract expressionist was that while he may have been abstract, his canvasses often included specific, recognizeable images, making them at once abstract and accessible. Here, images of, say, a pipe and a rocking horse serve as entry points for the viewer into his fantastic universe. For another example, see Davis's "Landscape with Broken Machine" on the Dayton Art Institute website, where Todd D. Smith also addresses Davis's Labor activism, notably as president of the Artist Union, editor of Art Front, and designer of some of its covers. "During the 1930s," Smith writes, "Davis, an avowed Marxist, was attempting to persuade the public that artists should be considered like other workers, and as such should be entitled to the same privileges of unions and collective action." On the anniversary of the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which 146 workers, most of them young immigrant women who had recently attempted to organize the factory, perished because their employers had locked the building's doors, it's a good time to also celebrate the work of an artist who was also an activist, even moreso today when workers fight to hang on to the very collective bargaining rights whose denial helped lead to the Triangle tragedy.

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